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Pacific not included in permanent offshore drilling ban

An offshore oil rig near Santa Barbara.

This week the White House announced President Obama has removed large areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from all future oil and gas exploration. But the president did not include Central Coast waters - or the rest of the West Coast - under the umbrella of permanent protection, at least not yet. 

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the law that governs offshore mineral mining in federal waters, the president is given the power to determine the boundaries of leasable seabed.

California Governor Jerry Brown sent a letter to the president on Dec. 13, requesting Obama forever remove California's offshore continental shelf from those areas available for future leasing to oil and gas companies. The California Coastal Commission and the state’s U.S. senators sent similar letters.

In mid-November, U.S. Dept. of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell released the federal government’s oil and gas leasing program for offshore federal waters through 2022.

Under the plan, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will not sell leases to oil companies that involve new drilling off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, including federal waters from Hearst Castle to Point Conception. But that program is only in effect from 2017 through 2022.

Richard Charter is a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, based in Washington DC and Northern California. Charter said the idea of protecting the California coast from offshore drilling has long been a bipartisan and non-controversial issue. But without protective action by Obama, Charter said the incoming Trump administration would have only the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Coast to choose from for a renewed leasing effort.

“The announcement [Dec. 20], as great as it is for wonderful places like the Outer Banks and the Georgia Sea Islands that we all love, this could place California in even greater jeopardy because it limits the range of options for a future Secretary of Interior if [the Trump administration proceeds] with a rampant leasing program,” Charter said.

Charter pointed out that federal waters from Cambria to Point Arena are already designated as a national marine sanctuary, as are the waters around the Channel Islands. But any areas outside those sanctuaries could be leased at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior and President Trump.

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